Airships: Conquer the skies: THE BIG REVIEW

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This is my entirely subjective, biased, badly written, overly long and complicated review of the video game Airships: Conquer the Skies.

Submitted: August 16, 2018

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Submitted: August 16, 2018

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THE BIG REVIEW

 

I have followed this game for years, waiting for it to be finished, playing on and off. I got to try the final version before release, and spoiler alert, it's a ton of fun.

I'm now going to spend my day writing an interminable review. I'm not a reviewer or a proficient writer, so don't read this awful crap, it's terrible.

Still here? Oh well. I warned you!

In this alternate universe, there exists a mineral called suspendium. Imagine solid blue floaty helium crystals, and you're there. In the 19th century or thereabouts, technologies have been developed around this crystal that has allowed humanity to build airships. Huge, explodey, pointy, shooty airships.

When launching the game, you can select which resolution you want to play at, fullscreen or windowed, and choose which mods to enable (if you have any). There is a graphics compatibility mode that I have never used. I poked it with a stick, and nothing happened. Harmless, I'm sure.

 

NOW WHAT IT DO? 

Once ingame, the menu is well polished and easy to understand, with the background music setting the mood for a few hours of wanton death and destruction. The settings are easy to tinker with and contain sufficient tools to customise the game for the needs of most systems. You can also choose your screen resolution from here in case you suddenly changed your mind and/or misplaced your glasses since launching the game.

It's worth mentioning that from this screen, you can also change the language if needed, with Airships supporting seven languages at this time.

The music is charming, and when necessary, fittingly epic, although the small amount of tracks can lead to the soundtrack becoming repetitive over a longer playthrough. This being said, the developer Zarkonnen will be adding five new tracks at release, and I can't wait to hear them.

From the main menu there are a few game types to choose from which are self explanatory, (Combat, for example, is a custom battle mode.) with a welcome in-depth tutorial that shows you the ropes. The game itself has a wonderful retro/steampunk theme which nullifies the effects of low detail textures and exploits the 2d perspective to the fullest. FX and sound are very well done, with the mouth watering, screen shuddering explosions being a highlight.  But let's start with Conquest.

 

 

CONQUEST! AAARGH!

 

Youll start on the setup screen. Here you can customise your Empires' coat of arms which will give you specific advantages based on the charge you select. Next, once the difficulty level, map size and type and research settings have been decided, it's time to get conquering.

Conquest mode is deeper than it appears, and contains AI factions, plus a raft of monsters, bandits, pirates and all other sorts pesky nuisances. Some of this depth comes from the fact that although the game is indeed called "Airships", it also features land vehicles, aircraft, some ground level crew gameplay and defensive buildings.

Conquest games are, to put it simply, your typical classic strategic mode, and take place on an overhead map that looks as if it came out of a 19th century war room. A steampunk, pixellated, ahistorical war room, with animated map technology, that is.

The map is dotted with cities and towns connected by roads, with some branching off towards the randomly placed monsters and camps you will encounter during your campaign. The game itself is quite nice from this perspective, if a little basic. It reminds me of a less colorful early Civilisation game.

Cities are your main population centres that generate more revenue, and they contain shipyards, which are yards. That build ships. Cities are surrounded by towns, your lower revenue territories which cannot build ships. No room for any yards, apparently. Your towns will often come in useful when defending cities, as they tend to serve as chokepoints for your forces to cut off enemy offensives You can build defensive structures in towns and cities that boast the equivalent firepower of an immobile, grounded airship, and these serve as a cheap way to fortify your borders. Land vehicles must follow roads. Airships travel as the crow flies. Naturally, the bigger a fleet gets, the slower it moves. With this mechanic, you can intercept enemy movements if you're fast enough.

Conquest games happen in real time, with buttons at the top right to vary and stop game speed when some intense thinking/meditation/full on panic is required. The UI is unintrusive, easy to use, and only has eight buttons! I even counted them on my left hand. (I'm a great pianist)

The gameplay mechanics during a campaign will be easy to pick up for anyone who has played a strategy game before, if a little simple once your empire is established. Luckily though, the strength of the game lies elsewhere. (Hint: It's in the title!)

If you're in trouble,here is a help button on the top right. It's helpful, FOR BABIES.

The overall experience is incredibly snappy and responsive thanks to the simplicity of the game, and coupled with the slick UI, this actually helps focus on enjoying the experience, rather than looking for tooltips, buttons, scrolls and hints this way and that. (Hi there, Paradox fans! *waves*)

 

GIMME THE MONEY

Economy management consists of little more than making sure your military upkeep doesn't exceed the income of your cities, towns and research budget whilst growing a war chest to eventually build that big, apocalyptic death fleet you've been dreaming of since destroying your siblings' immaculate lego airplane collection at the age of five. That and Warhammer 40000. Ahem, where was I?

 

THE SHIPS!

Oh right, ships. Building ships, building land vehicles and building buildings is quite straightforward, and you can choose to build your war machines from any city. But here is the kicker; Not all cities are built equal. The yards in which ships are built vary in size for each city, and this will affect build speed for all types of stucture and vehicle. Phew, that was a lot of buildings.

You can add ships together to form fleets. Land vehicles and airships can share a fleet, although the airships will then have to follow the roads. Airships also have the bonus of travelling over water, whereas Land vehicles cannot.

There are a few pre-designed ships and vehicles to have fun with, and you can capture AI vessels to steal their design and add to your own building options if you have the required tech. But that is only a fraction of the fun. You can build your own ships, vehicles and structures in an editor. This leads to shenanigans. More of that later.

 

GETTING BETTER STUFF

Now we get to Research. It centers around your military capabilites, and features a large branching tech tree which forces you to specialise into a particular ship/vehicle type early on in the game, and will give you access to more toys later which will allow you to create absolute dreadnoughts, covered in impenetrable armour and terrifying weapons. Alternatively, you could go for a fast, high flying bomber for example. You can choose your research budget as the game progresses in order to prioritize faster research speed, or to slow things down to help ease your Empires' bottom line when money gets tight. In my case, I chose to focus on my guns. Power, volume of fire and accuracy were my thing, but I was quite vulnerable to boarding, and hadn't researched more troop types, like grenadiers for instance.

 

SNEAKY STUFF

The campaign also features some light espionage, which essentially boils down to view opposing cities to size up enemy fleets before they leave to attack you, and conversely your spies can attempt to sabotage ships and buildings, for a cost. Of course, the AI can also do the same thing to the player if it needs to even the odds a bit, but this can be remedied if money allows by funding more rigorous secret police measures in the "Empire Details" screen. 

 

DAISY, DAISY, GIVE ME YOUR ANSWER DO

The AI is fairly basic and easy to exploit, the most obvious flaw being that an AI fleet will cancel an attack it is sure to win if you order your fleet to attack the city it came from, thus making it retreat to defend, and then just docking your fleet at home again. This being said, it has been massively improved recently, with the aforementioned monsters and bandits adding extra difficulty to make up for the AI, some of which will be a real challenge to defeat. A pirate raid on a major city can be a major headache when you're already in the middle of a war with a powerful enemy, however, the reward for crushing these pests is well worth the hassle if you think your fleet is up to the task. (I did. It wasn't. *shivers*)

The only downside to the conquest mode at the moment is that Diplomacy is lacking, bordering on nonexistent. I hope that alliances, trade and other goodies will come, but for the moment, only the AI can form alliances and that's about it.

 

CONQUEST MULTIPLAYER!  ERGH!

Now on to Multiplayer. I'll be a little brief as I haven't spent much time with it. To summarize, it makes Conquest even more enjoyable, adding a ton of new possibilities that an AI just can't provide. I have not played enough of this yet, but the lobby is familiar featuring a chat, game list and options to host a game. The conquest itself is identical to the singleplayer experience except of course that the stakes feel suddenly much higher when faced with actual real-life human baked beans. Oh, and the battles! *squee*

I haven't encountered many connectivity issues playing, which is surprising given how recently the feature was implemented, almost as an afterthought. But at first blush, it feels as if this feature was the main idea all along.

As I've only played one or two games, you might want to take these observations with a small pinch of salt.

 

 

BATTLES! !??

Here we go. Now we're talking. Battles are a literal blast, with your crew running around, funneling ammunition towards the hungry guns waiting to pummel your worthless opponent, as troops parasail to the ground ready to assault a fortress or board an enemy ship, whilst in the distance, four legged tanks and air vessels are colliding, exploding, crashing and flying, with cannonballs, torpedoes, planes, bullets and rockets whizzing every which way, in what is one hell of a waste of lead, and an environmental and safety hazard if you ask me. Crazy barbarians. Haven't they heard of a strongly worded letter? The pen is mightier than the airship, I tell you! *brandishes imaginary pen defiantly, all whilst typing this on a keyboard, wondering what the hell he is writing at this point*

 

WHAT A LOVELY VIEW

Swiftly moving on, battles happen from a 2D side view perspective, in real-time, with the option of viewing your ships and their lovely paintjob from the outside, or admiring the chaos and carnage that happens within the walls of your vessel a button press away. 

Weather and time of day are a factor in a battle, and things like storms, fog, rain and snow, and sunrise, dusk, sunset and night will give an advantage to one side or the other, or apply a certain effect to the battlefield in general.

The landscape can be modified to accomodate buildings or place them in a certain way. This comes at a cost during a Conquest game, however.

 

DURING AN ARMED DISPUTE (BETWEEN TWO AIRBORNE PARTIES) 
*OR LAND BASED ONES IF YOU LIKE THAT KIND OF THING

 

The battle interface is slightly more complex than in Conquest mode. The game speed controls at the top of the screen remain the same, and up here you can also choose to let the AI control your ship for you, and control how the camera follows the action. At the top right is another very detailed help button. I didn't read that one either. Help is for the weak

Battles start by placing your ships and vehicles in a deployment box reminscent of the Total War series, only vertically.

Airships can be placed as high as they can fly. Depending on how they are designed, this maximum height will vary greatly. This limit is called the service ceiling, and can change during a battle if a lucky shot lands in the wrong place. 

Land vehicles on the other hand, remain on the ground. In other news, water is wet. (although that seems to be up for debate according to some people..)

Buildings are lazy fat slobs, and don't go anywhere. You can move them around before the battle though. It's magic. Shhhh.

The actual ship controls are present on the lower half of the screen. They are laid out in a clear, functional way with the corresponding keyboard shortcut clearly displayed below each button. You will find yourself using the keyboard shortcuts a lot more than anything else, and this is obviously the intention.

Down here along with the controls, you will find information about your ship, for instance the crew complement, how much coal and ammo your ship has, and other resources. You will need to watch these carefully to avoid falling out of the sky. The game also helps to alert you of impending disaster by displaying icons above your ship, from yellow to red (red is super bad) for each resource.

 

BUT HOW DOES IT WORK?

Great question, Bob! All vehicles and structures are made up of modules and corridors, all arranged and working together to create an efficient killing machine. Your ships can be commanded once every x being determined by how many bridges and cockpits you have placed on the ship. The bigger the ship gets, the more command staff it's going to need!

Your air sailors (that's the official term) navigate their way through the ship using corridors, ladders and the module interiors themselves, and the entire vessel functions thanks to the crew. No hidden simulations here. If an engine runs out of coal, it's because the poor sod carrying the coal probably got turned to pixelated corned mush on the way from the coal bunker to his destination.

This adds an extra layer of depth to the game, as a badly designed ship can make it hard to get ammo to the guns quickly enough, or get coal to the suspendium chambers in time to keep the ship flying. Add to this that the injured get taken to sickbay modules in order to heal and return to  the battle after a few seconds, and you have a truly intricate system out of which some truly surprising results can emerge.

Additionally, you can use a nifty fire control system to instruct your crew to fire your weapons faster or slower, to focus on a specific activity, or even to ground the ship if needed. This is necessary for situations where coal is running low, or you have to fight a fire that's threatening to spiral out of control. Push the button, and the crew will drop everything and go and try to put it out.

Another facet of fire control is that slower firing increases accuracy, and rapid fire diminishes it. This is useful for adapting to long range engagements or in your face all out brawls.

 

Kill me please..

As ships take damage, they can lose capabilities like lift or propulsion, providing they have been hit in the right place. The more damage a ship takes, the more likely it is that something will go boom, usually a damaged module taking one hit too many, or an out of control fire. Here is where the beautiful art and effects shine. The more catastrophic explosions often trigger a chain reaction, ripping ships apart by the end, sending debris flying everywhere, and bits of unexploded ship raining down on the ground. (Or on other ships, hehe.)

You will also be able to see your crew make comments from within the ship, a "we're out of ammo!" here, a "fire!" there, along with an officer that lets you know of major events unfolding during the battle. This really adds a connection to your ship and crew, and you will often find yourself rooting for a ship, and swearing at your monitor when it all gloriously goes up in smoke. Explosively.

The cool thing is that these rapid unscheduled dissassemblies can often be the consequence of a flaw in your ships' design. This brings me to the editor. 

 

THE EDITOR!  OOOOOOOOOOooooooooooo......

 

I won't go into detail otherwise I'd have to publish the review in episodes, but it's one of the most satisfying creative experiences I've had in a game to date.

 

HOW DOES IT WORK?

In Airships: Conquer the Skies, you are free to make any ship, tank, fortress, or aircraft carrier that you can imagine. You need to allow for vital systems and resources like crew, command, ammo, coal, lift (in the case of airships), water, and repair supplies, just to name a few, but beyond that, it's a steampunk Wild West of creative freedom. *Just don't try to build a library or something.

 

HOW DOTH ONE WORK THIS THING, THEN?

 

Thanks Bob, you're on a roll! You need to build up your ship by placing modules that perform specific tasks and you are helped by toggleable overlays that inform you on what is lacking or problematic in your current design. Each module you place has a pool of hit points, which can be influenced by how you decide to place adjacent modules. There are many ways to manipulate this but suffice it to say, it's a deep system.

You can also protect your creations with many armour types, each of which has strengths and weaknesses based on weight, damage resistance and hit points. 

How and where your modules and armour are placed will help or hinder the effectiveness of your craft.
You can choose sails or propellers, passive or active lift options, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Big guns and lots of ammo? You might explode more easily. Lots of armour? You might be slow and hard to pull out of sticky situations. Not enough fire extinguishers? Enjoy the barbecue! Also, seriously, don't forget to build a bridge. You'll see.

Now don't forget to decorate your ship! Add decorative blocks, paint the thing, add decals and a huge bunch of decorative elements to make your war machine look so badass, even the mighty Bismarck would look like a small angry assault canoe with acne, in comparison.

Armed with all these toys, the gameplay possibilities are endless, with ships specialised around specific purposes such as ramming or sniping, and maybe you'll just build a huge angry death machine with a bit of everything. 

How about a swarm of tiny fly-like airships that can't take a hit but send such a sheer volume of  fire your way, it's almost impossible to deal with?

Do you want your tank to have tracks or giant spider legs?

A boarding ship full of so many angry marines and aircraft that your poor old battleship will be captured in seconds?

How about bombers? Circular saws? Battering rams? Epic Flak towers? 

Is your name Hans? Do you like Flammenwerfers?

This game has these things. All of them.

 

THE DRAMATIC CONCLUSION

 

I once built a ship larger than any other. After hours spent in a camaign, and more in the editor, then slowly building up funds, I had finally chosen HMS Emperor as its name. Innumerable guns, ammo and crew. Repair resources for days. Armoured to impenetrability. 

I had thought of everything. It was a little slow, granted, and the ship was vulnerable to higher altitude attack, not being able to ascend so high itself. But I was convinced that this was THE ULTIMATE SHIP. The Destroyer Of Worlds. Bringer of Death, Bearer of great Discomfort. Harbinger of my inevitable Victory. 

That was until the battle. I was intercepting an attack. The Maiden voyage of my glorious creation. That should have set my Celine Dion PTSD off right there, but it started well, with a withering opening salvo absolutly gutting an enemy land vehicle, and putting it out of action. 

Opposing me in the air were two puny torpedo boats, made of wood, spit, a bit of string and wishful thinking. "HAH!" I thought. "I will stay right where I am, ground the ship, use aimed fire, and snipe them out of the sky." And shoot away I did. The ships though, were small. Many shots whizzed by them entirely. They were probably lucky, but what happened next wasn't.

A lone torpedo struck the fore ammo storage depot, which subsequently detonated. Along with it, a few bow cannons were knocked out, and a fire was started. "no biggie", I thought, as the crew raced to put the blaze out. Then another torpedo hit a coal bunker. Oh no. First off, the forward ammo fire spread upwards and aft, to a second ammo depot, which also decided it would be a great idea to completely obliterate the front end of my beloved airship in a wonderfully tragic (and expensive) firework display. 

At this stage, I was somewhat airbourne again, had half my guns left, and I was attempting to back myself further away from the enemy. Bad idea. The coal fire quickly spread to the Suspendium chambers, and they all went bang in quick succession. The ship then started plummeting to the ground, whilst what was left of the front end decided to vacate the premises explosively, landing in an adjacent field. 

To say that the ship landed hard is an understatement. Crash would be much more fitting, as the crater it made was deep enough to see Airships' blocky equivalent of Australia from. (Future expansion?) 

Then the grand finale started with the whole ship collapsing in on itself. It was cascade of debris, dead airsailors, torpedoes, and MORE EXPLOSIONS.  At this point, my dreams of world domination were melting away like a metaphorical camp fire marshmallow that fell off the end of the fork, and into the now crackling flames, in a gooey, sticky, runny, nightmarish mess.

That horrific reverie is also pretty close to what my now broken ship looked like, especially the boiled airsailor soup with some air marine seasoning. But here's the thing. I'd just lost the flagship of the fleet, a ton of money, and a good chunk of my pride. And let's not forget hours of my time and wasted effort. But I didn't ragequit. I just sat there, quite astounded at what I had just gone through. 

After dribbling vacantly for a bit, I even played a bit more. And following this humiliating defeat, I completely redesigned the HMS Emperor. It turns out that coal next to a ton more coal and then some ammo isn't always the best idea. (It was my first campaign, okay?) In any other game I can remember, I would have punched something, and uninstalled.

That's why I'm recommending this little gem that Zarkonnen has lovingly created. This game is much greater than the sum of its parts, and with its unassuming outward appearance the game will easily blow away your lowly misplaced expectations.You'll probably end up spending hours lost in it, and building your own Emperor just like me. (I call dibs on the name though.)

 

Verdict:

5/7 would explode again

 


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